Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

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The 'False News' Trial of Ernst Zündel -- 1988

Bill M. Armontrout

[Warden Bill M. Armontrout was the nineteenth witness called by the defence. He testified on Tuesday, April 19, 1988.]

Bill M. Armontrout was the Warden of Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. The facility housed 2,200 long-term inmates and had a staff of 734 personnel. Armontrout held a Master's degree in Criminal Justice and had been appointed to the position of warden on January 1, 1984. In his capacity as warden, Armontrout was personally responsible for carrying out executions by the use of cyanide gas. Cyanide was required by state statute to be used in the gas chamber as it was the quickest and most efficient gas. (32-8902; 8868, 8869)

The gas chamber in Missouri was a two chair model which had been constructed in 1938 and used for thirty-nine executions. There had been no executions since 1965. The chamber measured six by ten feet with an area of approximately 60 square feet inside the chamber itself. The walls were constructed of steel about 3/8's of an inch thick with glass windows. It was sealed completely airtight. The door seal and all the window seals were sealed with a heavy coating of Vaseline. Because of its age, the chamber had a World War I vintage ship's hatch on it with six dog wheels which tightened down against a neoprene gasket. (32-8872, 8878)

In the course of his work, Armontrout was required to test the equipment frequently. No gas was used in this process. It was normally done twice a month, but prior to an execution Armontrout trained his staff each day for a week prior to the scheduled date. Roughly thirty- eight personnel were closely involved on-site with an execution. By state statute, Armontrout was required to either carry the execution out himself or to appoint another party. Armontrout had witnessed two executions and helped with one, although not at Missouri. (32-8873, 8878, 8884)

Armontrout introduced the Execution Schedule used at the penitentiary (filed as Exhibit 133):

11:00 p.m. All towers will be doubled -- #6 and #7 towers will be vacated at 11:00 p.m. Two officers will be assigned to the Front Door.

Two officers will be assigned to the Round Gate.

One officer will be assigned to the Cleaning Plant.

Two officers will be assigned to #16 Tower Gate.

One officer will be assigned to the Power House.

(NOTE: All inmates working at the Power House will be kept inside until the execution is completed and the ambulance has left the premises through the Railroad Gate). Two officers will be assigned to the Lower Yard at the Railroad Gate and will assist in keeping inmates assigned to the Power House inside the Power House building and will also assist in opening and closing the Railroad Gates. Two officers will be assigned outside the Railroad Gate with shotguns.

11:15 p.m. The Associate Warden of Program Services will proceed to the Gas Chamber with the druggist and the men assigned to the valves. He will see that all equipment, such as gas masks, acids, pellets, ammonia, trunks, and masks are taken to the chamber at this time. Upon arrival at the chamber, he will inspect all working apparatus. The ammonia reservoirs will be filled, making sure that all stop cocks are closed and lower intake vents are sealed, and the men assigned to such valves will take their places and they will see that no one tampers with the valves. DO NOT PERMIT ANYONE TO STAND ON VALVES.

11:30 p.m. The condemned man will be taken from the Receiving Unit and placed in a car and taken immediately to the cell at the Gas Chamber. Immediately upon arriving at the cell, he will be stripped of all clothing and dressed in black trunks which he will wear in the Chamber.

The Inmate Program Supervisor will leave the Visiting Room with all witnesses and will conduct them to the Gas Chamber. Before going through the Control Center Gate, he will make sure that the car bearing the condemned man has left. If the car has not left, the witnesses will be held at the Control Center Gate until the car leaves. He will caution all witnesses to remain as quietly as possible while passing through the yard. Upon arrival at the Chamber, all witnesses will be admitted to the witnesses side of the Chamber.

12:01 a.m. The Death Warrant will be read to the condemned man and immediately after the reading of the Death Warrant, the mask will be placed over the eyes of the condemned man and he will be led into the Chamber. While the Death Warrant is being read, the cyanide pellets will be placed in the traps. After the victim is strapped in the chair, the jars containing the acid will be placed under the chair and the lids removed and placed on the floor inside the chamber, behind the chair. After the lids are removed, the attendants will leave the Chamber and will then proceed to close and seal the door. After the door is properly closed and sealed, the Warden will pull the lever which drops the pellets into the acid.

When the condemned is pronounced dead by the Chief Medical Officer, the exhaust fan will be set in motion and the stop-cocks on the ammonia reservoirs will be opened and the air intakes valves will be released. The caps on the ammonia reservoirs should be loosened, but not taken off.

There was a regular procedure followed in the course of preparing for an execution which began about twenty hours prior to it, said Armontrout. (32-8873) Historically, Missouri carried out all executions at one minute past midnight. The procedure entailed the doubling of guards on towers, the setting up of checkpoints and the bringing in of an ambulance with paramedics in case a staff person or witness was affected by the gas. (32-8876) The associate warden proceeded to the gas chamber with the chemist and performed a number of checks before the arrival of Armontrout. These checks included:

(1) Ensuring that four ammonia reservoirs in the bottom of the gas chamber were filled. This ammonia was released after the execution to help reduce the cyanide gas to crystals which could be washed away. (32-8877, 8878)

(2) Ensuring that there were thirty-nine cyanide pellets placed in a trip tray in the gas chamber. Each pellet was the size of a length of a man's finger and was equivalent to about one pound. The trip tray was operated by a mechanical lever from the outside of the unit. When the lever was pulled, the trip tray fell down and the thirty-nine pellets fell into a lead bucket filled with equal parts of warm water and sulfuric acid located under the chair of the condemned. The water was warm to make the solid pellets gas off quickly for the maximum production of gas in the shortest possible time. (32-8879, 8880, 8890, 8895, 8896)

At 11:30 p.m., the condemned man was taken from the holding cell to the gas chamber holding cell. (32-8877) If no stay against the execution was ordered, Armontrout was notified at 12:01 a.m. by the Governor to proceed with the execution. (32-8878)

The chief medical officer was positioned where he could observe the condemned man from a window. The condemned man had an EKG machine hooked to him to monitor his heartbeat. The medical officer recorded time periods between the release of the pellets, the gas striking the face, and the head falling forward. Armontrout, from his own observation of an execution, testified that ten seconds after the pellets dropped the prisoner's eyes glazed over. At the count of fifty-eight, Armontrout believed the man was dead but the EKG machine did not show a flat line indicating death for 13 minutes. (32-8880, 8881))

On top of the gas chamber was a blower which sucked the air out of the chamber itself and expelled it into the atmosphere through a 40-foot stack. Two guard towers located near the stack had to be vacated when the gas was expelled. Armontrout testified that he would not want to expel any gas into the atmosphere unless it was well above the prison wall. The gas chamber was located at the lower level of the prison in a dead spot as far as air circulation was concerned. He believed some of the gas could hang there and be a danger to staff and witnesses. (32-8874, 8875, 8882)

After the execution, the ammonia was released and the gas expelled out of the chamber. All staff and witnesses were removed from the area. The ventilation fan ran for approximately an hour before two officers equipped with Scott air-packs (self-contained breathing apparatus which firemen use to enter smoke-filled buildings) opened the hatch of the gas chamber and removed the lead bucket containing the cyanide residue. The two officers wore rubberized disposable clothing and long rubber gloves. They hosed down the condemned man's body in the chair, paying particular attention to the hair and the clothing because of the cyanide residue, then removed him and placed him on a gurney where further decontamination took place. The officers then hosed the entire inside of the gas chamber with regular cold water. (32-8883, 8884, 8894)

The ventilation fan was a very powerful squirrel-cage type fan that was encased in the stack. (32-8904) Armontrout testified that he had no idea how long it would take to ventilate the gas chamber without the ventilation fan. He believed he would have to abandon the complete area, open the ammonia and air valves, and hope for enough draft to clear it. It would take many, many hours. (32-8887)

It was an antiquated chamber and there were dangers of leakage from the chamber itself to staff and witnesses and also with respect to the expulsion of the gas into the atmosphere afterwards. (32-8871)

Armontrout also had humane concerns in the execution process. There were no safety devices in the gas chamber such as gas sniffers or negative pressure. Armontrout asked the State legislature for a quarter of a million dollars to renovate the chamber, to put in the safety devices and automated gas ejection and ventilation equipment. (32-8874, 8890, 8891, 8897)

Armontrout was asked about the feasibility of using gas in a room thirty metres long and seven metres wide. He replied that he believed it would be dangerous if it got loose that way. Without proper ventilation, it would be very dangerous. (32-8892)

Armontrout testified that there was only one consultant in the United States that he knew of in the design, operation, and maintenance of gas chambers. That consultant was Fred Leuchter. (32-8896)

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